'The Old Man & The Gun' Editor Lisa Zeno Churgin on the Keys to a Successful Director/Editor Relationship
For David Lowery's latest film, the director enlisted the help of an editor he was familiar with.
At 82 years young (and in what may or may not be his final starring role in a motion picture), Robert Redford stars in David Lowery's quietly complex The Old Man & The Gun as Forrest Tucker, an obsessive bank robber who's just so damn charming.
His routine? Walk into a bank dressed as an elderly businessman complete with hat, overcoat, and what one might assume is a hearing aid (but is really an earpiece that picks up local feeds of police radioing each other across the airwaves), make nice with the teller, and then let them know that they're in the midst of a robbery. He notes that he has a gun, smiles, receives his bag full of cash, and walks out like nothing ever occurred, his two accomplices (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) awaiting his getaway in a car parked outside.
That he gets away with this so often is one of the many charms of Lowery's film, a cross between an octogenarian love story (the younger but no less experienced Sissy Spacek plays a woman with car troubles who grows smitten with Forrest) and a pulpy crime story, with a detective, John Hunt (Casey Affleck) hot on the smooth geezer's conniving trail. The movie ends as sweetly as it starts, and the pathos underneath the material—one conversation on a porch between Redford and Spacek about their younger selves being proud of who they grew up to become, is particularly poignant—is surprisingly weighty.
As the film opens in theaters this Friday, No Film School spoke with Academy Award-nominated editor Lisa Churgin about working with Lowery, learning Adobe Premiere Pro, editing to get the most out of an actor's performance, and much more.
No Film School: This is the second David Lowery film you've edited after Pete's Dragon. Apart from both films featuring Robert Redford, the two are very different. As an editor, do you approach the work differently when it's a special effects-driven film as opposed to a more relaxed character piece?
Lisa Churgin: Well, obviously, the challenges in Pete's Dragon, in terms of the action scenes, were that they were of higher stakes (in terms of a fiery dragon), but you're given the material and you just want to make it sing. I had a really beautiful dialogue scene in Pete's Dragon with Grace and Pete's talk in the bedroom and that's actually one of the reasons why I think David selected me as his editor on the film.
David and his producer wanted somebody who had a lot of dramatic experience, a real connection between characters, and that's very much one of my backgrounds. I mean, I've done a lot of deep dark dramas and I've done romantic comedies too, but it's all about connection. And in this film, The Old Man & The Gun, the main character is elusive but people are all trying to connect with him, and he's only doing it in his way.
"There are a lot of things that I bring from Avid to Premiere, and now, since I went back to Avid, there are things that I've brought from Premiere back into the way I work with Avid."
NFS: I had read that you had to learn Adobe Premiere Pro for work on this film. Did that present any challenges for you? A reshuffling of a certain mindset, if you will?
Churgin: Now that I've had the opportunity to go back and forth a few times between Avid and Premiere, after I finished Old Man, I went back to cutting on Avid and was like, “Oh my god, am I going to remember how to do this?” They do have their different mindsets, but you just adapt and go in slow with it. I think Premiere is a little more visual and I did not adapt, 100%, to the Premiere keyboard.
Adobe helped provide me with a tutor so that I was able to hit the ground running when I started on Old Man. Mike Melendi, my very experienced first assistant, was really helpful. However, there are a lot of things that I bring from Avid to Premiere, and now, since I went back to Avid, there are things that I've brought from Premiere back into the way I work with Avid. They do have their own mindsets though, and I found that I was really happy to see that I could easily adapt to both.
NFS: The film opens (and continuously returns back to) title cards that announce the location, date, and time (down to the minute) of a current scene. Was that inclusion made in the edit? Did it affect how you edited sequences together?
Churgin: That was something that David always knew we were going to try to do (noting time and place), certainly with the robberies needing to do show that and showing the breadth of locations of where the robberies took place. The thing is: we put those things in way late. As for the music, we cut the movie without music for the majority of the editorial period. The music was a really late addition. We did not use a temp score at all.
NFS: Was that always intentional or that's just how it fell into place?
Churgin: For David, I think that he really didn't want to. It was a bit of an experiment. With Pete's Dragon, we had a very extensive temp score because of previewing, showing it to Disney, etc. and it was a really great temp score. But the thing that happens is, directors will always talk about temp lows, and I think David really didn't want to do that, and it was his opportunity to experiment to allow the movie itself to dictate the rhythms (rather than the music).
Due to this, you are really forced to find internal rhythms rather than an external rhythm that a piece of music would provide. You don't want to make a cut based on accounts of the score.
Sometimes it's absolutely perfect, and I mean, the best thing for an editor is: you cut a scene, and then you put in a piece of temp music; I used to just pick it for the length of the scene. If I had a six-minute scene, I would start finding the music that really hits over those six minutes.
Our music editor friends who worked with us on Pete's Dragon said that I cut in 4/4 time. It made it really easy for them and I'm always happy to adjust cuts and things like that if need be; I've had to do that on musicals, too...It was a really interesting process working without music for so long.
"If there's a certain tilt to the head or a certain smile that an actor has, you want to make sure that those things come out because that's who and what they are."
NFS: Robert Redford plays a gentlemanly, charming criminal. He also carries a bit of a mystique around him. When in the edit, did you attempt to find new ways to present him, such as, in one sequence including a wipe transition that adds to his mysteriousness?
Churgin: Yeah, you're just trying to and it's not very difficult! You just want Bob [Redford] to shine, especially as we felt a bit of responsibility with this being his last starring role. I just wanted to make sure that I got every fantastic nugget that he had to offer. I've worked with a lot of really great actors, but I consider this to be the first time I've worked with a true movie star.
Because of this, the thing is to get out of their way and protect them. I say to young editors with whom I speak, "It's our job, as editors, to protect the actors and their performances and bad habits that they might have."
Also, if there's a certain tilt to the head or a certain smile that an actor has, you want to make sure that those things come out because that's who and what they are. The persona that Bob brings (and part of his charm) is not only because we've had the opportunity to see this wonderful actor for so many years on screen, but also due to the character of Forrest who is charming and elusive, you know, like Bob is. Bob's not your typical star.
NFS: The film also has a very romanticized, classical aura about it, and each dissolve that leads to a scene transition adds to that effect. Can scene transitions be something that helps create an identity for a film?
Churgin: Well, certainly once you have dissolves, you're going back to an older, previous time. We did have fun experimenting with that, versus using just hard cuts. The thing that's really funny is that when you used to work in non-linear, you could push a button to create a dissolve versus drawing a grease pencil line across the film, which still created that image. I worked on movies where once we discovered architectural tape and could show that that created dissolve, on film, in front of a preview audience, and people understood it. They went with splices and dirt on the film, so it's how you start the movie, and then the audience just goes with it.
This film and its use of 16mm was really funny because when I would start to watch dailies, it was like, “Oh my God, there's a piece of dirt. There's a hair. There's a this, or that.” And now you can just paint it out. I mean, in the old days, you'd call the lab and you'd tell them there's something on the film and "can it be cleaned off?" It was a totally different mindset. Sometimes, because we did have to do some opticals and have it done digitally, we'd shoot grain structures so that they'd take off the grain and then put it back on. It was like, “Oh, how can I play with this? How can I get more?”
"It's always a wonderful challenge to put each of those pieces together for an editor and exactly how you go in one scene and out of another."
NFS: The sequence in which Forrest robs the bank that John Hunt is visiting with his children involves so many things going on at once. As Hunt tells his son the elaborate "frog joke," we're attempting to listen to the joke while our eyes are processing the visual information of a robbery currently in progress. As an editor, how does a scene like this—information for the ears and contrasting information for the eyes—present opportunities for you?
Churgin: Oh, that was a wonderful puzzle to solve, because Casey Affleck came up with that, and because I wasn't there, that was the most storyboarded scene in the film. David really wanted to make sure he got it. We needed to keep the story going as well as the joke Casey is telling, and keep the robbery moving properly. And so, to find the pieces—especially to be able to get the pieces where you had Casey and Bob and the bank manager in the background and to be able to incorporate everybody— was just fun. It was hard fun, but it was still fun, and I thought we had solved it.
NFS: Have you had other experiences where the dialogue is extremely integral but also the scene, visually, is just as important?
Churgin: In this film or in others?
NFS: In your other work as well.
Churgin: Well, I came across that very early on. Bob Roberts was a totally intercut movie and it was not shot nor written that way. We ended up doing that for time's sake and for dramatic impact. That experience made me lose all fear of intercutting scenes.
It's always a wonderful challenge to put each of those pieces together for an editor and exactly how you go in one scene and out of another...those kinds of challenges are really, really fun. In Bob Roberts, we would come across two scenes, and once we started doing it, it was just like, “Okay,” and that's how the entire style of the movie evolved in the editing room.
NFS: Then you have another scene where Forrest and Jewel go to a diner on their "first date" and where they keep visiting throughout the film. It serves as an important piece of the plot, of course, when John Hunt and his wife eventually show up there. Before we get to that moment, though, it's important for the viewer to understand the layout of the diner, where everything is positioned, and I was wondering if that was something that you were determined to get across in your edit?
Churgin: It's funny, I haven't thought about that. I don't know if you really notice as much where the bathrooms are in the scene, but, of course, you do when Sissy walks in and says, “Oh, I never thought you were gonna call.” And when she comes into the diner and asks“How's your trip?” and “Oh, it's all good," and the camera keeps moving straight back even though it's not on them. I guess, yes, that would be to show us where this ultimate meeting is going to take place [between John and Forrest in the second half of the film].
I leave that to David in terms of doing all the planning, but it was obvious to me that that's what he wanted in terms of the way the footage was shot. I actually never thought about it in those terms, but you are absolutely right. That's the beauty of it. You know, for me, I'm just trying to make sure that our interest is kept, especially because it wasn't such an overt thing on David's part in terms of that, but it was intentional, and it's the way that he does everything very organically.
"Casey is doing an homage to The Sting when he goes to say goodbye to Forrest in the hospital and gives him the 100 dollar bill."
NFS: As Forrest recalls, late in the film, his past prison escapes to Jewel, you cut to a montage of his past successful attempts. This includes escapes from when he was very young and also includes footage of a much younger Redford, no doubt taken from other films he had previously been featured in. What discussions were had about this sequence and how then did you go about crafting it?
Churgin: Wasn't he beautiful? Oh my goodness. Again, it's because, during principal photography, we always knew that the escape montages and pieces of the robbery montage were going to have to be shot in a different time period, due to the locations of where the montages, the escape montages, took place. The idea was how to make it as fun as possible, and knowing that he's already done movies that involved that? Why not [include them]?!
Casey is doing an homage to The Sting when he goes to say goodbye to Forrest in the hospital and gives him the 100 dollar bill, and Casey's reaction to Bob when he needs him in the bathroom at the diner. These things, as I say, are homages. That's part of the movie, but it's also part of, “I can't believe this person exists and is doing this, and he is so charming.” Sissy smiles at him when Bob asks her, “Well, what do you think?” Or when he's telling her the story of how he would rob the bank, and he charms the pants off of her with just his smile.
NFS: My final question is about the director-editor relationship, because I believe with Adobe as well, you can be sending material back and forth without being in the same room, working on the same timeline and sharing files...
Churgin: Well, you never want to be working on the same timeline!
NFS: Not on the same timeline, sorry!
Churgin: You never want to be doing that. The thing that they have now is “Share Projects.” It's much easier to do it the same way Avid does. There's a lot on it, and the company has organized it differently. I just recently had an opportunity to do it, where we were able to experiment a little on Old Man and with certain other kinds of things.
David is an editor in his own right and so there are certain sequences he wanted to become very intimate and fool around with, and then give it back to me to either put it in or make changes as I saw fit, to make sure that it stayed within the main style of the film. That's always a wonderful thing because it gives a feeling of being one-on-one. I've worked with numerous directors who just like to sit at the machine and really look at the film, starting with Ben Stiller on Reality Bites, who would really look at dailies and watch them.
"I think a lot of directors find it really tedious, to come back and then you show them all the stuff, take more notes, and then they go away again."
NFS: When it comes to being an editor, is there a preferred method of working with a director? Do you have any preferences in terms of that working relationship?
Churgin: Everybody is different. There are some directors who want to stay in the room and sort of hang out. David, however, would come in and we would review material and I'd take notes, and then he'd go away, then come back, and we'd go over stuff. Sometimes I'd just send him stuff on Frame.io. He had certain commitments to other things, and you know, when we were on Pete's Dragon, he had to go and do some additional shooting in New Zealand and we were able to communicate and cut from one side of the world to another.
I sometimes cut by telephone. Whenever there was a sound montage in Bob Roberts, I would call Tim Robbins and would hold the receiver up to the speaker so that he was able to make comments. "Whatever works," as they say.
Some directors want to be in the room all the time. I think a lot of them find it really tedious, to come back and then you show them all the stuff, take more notes, and then they go away again. Whatever process works best for you [you should do], because it is a process. That's definitely one of the beauties of the things that I have learned: it's the process. The process needs to adapt to whomever you're working with.