December 3, 2018

Editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis on Crafting a Different Kind of Period Piece in 'The Favourite'

'The Favourite' is one of the best films of the year. Here's how it was put together. 

An 18th-century period piece in which the period gets redefined and transmuted throughout, Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite emphasizes the old adage, "kill them with kindness," at times almost literally. An anachronistic comedy in which backstabbing and political gain are all the fiery rage, the film gleefully features the dirtiest of words rolling off the cleanest of tongues. 

Starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne of Great Britain, and Rachel Weisz (Lady Sarah) and Emma Stone (Abigail) as two cousins with less than altruistic intentions to win her heart, the film unfolds as a series of selfish one-upmanship, both of the younger women often acting  like two children battling over mom and dad's will. That Lady Sarah, Anne's long-time trusted confidant, is perhaps more loyal than the recently arrived Abigail, is beside the point; each of these two women (and the wig-wearing men who make up the political parties around them) have vampiric, blood-sucking qualities all their own. 

Shot primarily inside the vast confines of the historic Hatfield House, The Favourite is both familiar and altogether something new. Something feels "off" about the proceedings that take place within the halls and spaces of the mansion; a sequence involving dance feels stylistically two centuries ahead of itself. Is it the often classical score transfused with the ethereal sounds on the audio track? The deliberate use of fisheye lenses that provide an alien-like view of our characters as observed through an astronaut helmet? The sexual overtones that are as blunt as they are alluring? Queen Anne's maternal qualities that are most obsessively placed upon her pet rabbits in lieu of children? The Favourite is a great film about the abnormality of the past, an upright middle-finger to the often stuffiness of the costume drama.

As The Favourite continues its theatrical expansion nationwide, No Film School spoke with editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis about his long-lasting partnership with Lanthimos, his preferred editing software, match cuts, fisheye lenses, and more. 

No Film School: You've edited all of Yorgos Lanthimos's feature films. How did you two meet and to what do you attribute the long-lasting partnership?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Well, we have a generational difference. I guess I'm in between the old generation of filmmakers and his generation. So before I met him, I had done a lot of commercials. I was working on commercial things a lot. Lanthimos ended up in the commercial film industry as well and I remember that  I did his first commercial, as a matter of fact. I edited his first video clips, and also his first short film.

We met in the commercial business and got along together. We developed a kind of friendship that was based mainly on our common interest in what we were doing and also a kind of, let's say, resistance towards a director's cut, something like that, even if it was the commercial business. From the beginning, Lanthimos tried and insisted on developing his own personal language. He's filmed a lot of commercials and he has said that he would use commercials in order to experiment on film and on editing and comedy and on a lot of things. He used to do a lot of strange comedy in the commercial business as well.

We worked many years developing that. Of course, Lanthimos always wanted to make a film. The first one was Kinetta, which was a very low budget film. I think the budget for the whole thing was 20,000 euros.  It was a total experiment. It was shot with a hand-held camera and the script was only 16 pages, featuring a lot of interpretation from the actors. He tried to develop different calls on his film. Of course, it was not a very easy collaboration from the beginning.

Lanthimos was very, let's say, introverted. I was as well. We didn't talk much. It was not a [series of] discussions. Maybe there was a kind of trust between us. I think the first collaboration was okay. Let's say we did it. I think we got along very well together on Dogtooth, his feature film, because we had time. We had a lot of time to edit and we were not in a hurry. We were doing commercials in between, and so we took our time. We experimented a lot on the editing. That was good. That gave us the basis for the following collaborations.

Because this is mainly what we do, we need time to complete the different stages of editing together. After doing all of these collaborations with him, we've developed a standard procedure of working together. We break down the plot and try different editing motifs, using them as a formal principle and not just as a carrier of plots for the motivations of the characters, but also orchestrating the lighting, the movement of the camera, the music, the sounds, and so on.

Olivia Colman in Yorgos Lanthimos's 'The Favourite,' courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

NFS: The film is a period piece, but it often doesn't have the trappings of the stuffy, mechanical ones many of us have grown up on. Did this reimagining of genre affect your approach to the material?

Mavropsaridis: Yes, of course. First of all, I must tell you that I came to The Favourite after the assembly was already done. I couldn't work part in parcel all this time. I was first to "read" the cut and then I read the script, as a matter of fact. There was already a structure there. There was a script there. Okay, we did work with a small, let's say, corrective script, working a lot more on the actresses, on the power of everything, but it was the same structure.

After we were satisfied (that was after about a month of work), we started to explore the structures. First of all, that's what we do. We find the structure that's mostly in response not to the situation of the plot, i.e. explaining that the plot is that Abigail comes to the palace and becomes a catalyst for change in the relationship between these two women, but changing the structure, as we had done from Dogtooth in editing, changes that also affect the perspective of who you want to see or who we want the audience to see.

For example, we took out the scene where Abigail first arrives and everything starts up. We didn't like it. We started the film instead with a discussion between the Queen and Sarah on the nature of love. And then Abigail comes. The premise is thus different now. It's not only about this girl coming here, but it's also more about questioning the love relations between these three women.

Other times, the structure changed because the script took a lot of time to expand outward. Maybe we take out things because they are not needed. Maybe we combine different places from the script. When we worked together on The Lobsterwe had to explain all of the rules and this took place, originally, over numerous scenes, and so we constructed one scene [out of it].

We did this a lot for The Favourite. Sometimes it was for aesthetic reasons, sometimes we wanted the rhythm of the film to be faster, in a sense, to have more of a pulse somehow. Sometimes you have a scene and you wish to keep some of the lines and so you combine them with a different scene. I'm working [toward] the way Lanthimos wants to see the film played.

"All of this is is my explanation. People can explain it in different ways."

NFS: Given its classical nature, what use did you see dissolves serving within this material? 

Mavropsaridis: We used dissolves mainly for aesthetic reasons. For example, it wasn't so scripted in The Lobster, and in fact, we only use it three times in that film, from the hotel. to the woods. and from the woods to the city. For example, the first one in The Favourite is at the library. Somehow we wanted to emphasize, formally, a close up of Abigail insinuating something, about her character. Other times it was for aesthetic reasons, for transitions or maybe because we did develop all these aesthetic tools to last through the end of the film.

The final scene with the rabbits was there [in the script] from the beginning]. The idea was from the beginning there. We had to reach that point where, "Okay, we have lots of juxtapositions [in the film] and it affects the aesthetic form of the scene." We had to match that. We had to find ways to use this dissolve so that you're prepared to watch it and you get affected. It's like, if you play music on top of a second song, you cannot change songs suddenly! This was the idea.

NFS: How was the ending of the film described to you? And how did you come to use superimpositions on top of superimpositions to leave the audience drowning in a sea of rabbits?

Mavropsaridis: That was Lanthimos's idea from the very beginning. We had to construct it because it was not shot like that. There were a couple of rabbit close-ups in the end, but he wanted this idea to come through. He wanted to make a dissolve of all of these cuts together, to somehow combine them and create this multi-level light. At the time you see it, of course, you have to see the character of Abigail and what she realizes during that moment. You also have to see, in the close-up, the Queen and what she realizes. You have also to connect, I call it, the not so fruitful love affair, because that's what she has. She has all of these abortive pregnancies, and so maybe her love affairs were not fruitful somehow. Maybe you can connect the dots there. 

But anyway, it's not that we discussed it. All of this is is my explanation. People can explain it in different ways. But these are the calls I can take on the film and I try to combine them if I'm a viewer and want to understand what's happening. Of course, I need to put my own interpretation in that for what happens, yes.

Emma Stone in Rachel Weisz in Yorgos Lanthimos's 'The Favourite,' courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

NFS: Cinematographer Robbie Ryan often implements fisheye lenses for several shots throughout the film. As editor, did you choose when and where to include those? How did you see them as working as an integral part of the film's visual structure?

Mavropsaridis: This was all part of the general ideal from Yorgos Lanthimos, to make this, as you say, "old historic, period drama" more modern, especially through the cinematography, the costumes, the jewels, the choreography, and of course, the editing. At certain times, we even tried to use more modern music, but then we reverted to the more classical because we didn't see that it took away from the modernity of the picture.

Of course, it was a deliberate choice at certain moments when to use the fisheye lens. And sometimes we do things without reason. One other aspect of Lanthimos's narrative is that he is present. He says "this is the way I narrate it. I am here."  Some people find [the fisheye] lens too much or too intrusive to the narrative, but that's what it is. Yes. Because we are viewers of film and we have to be reminded of that. Because we must make some particular conscious efforts on watching a film like that, I guess, or I hope!

"You start connecting the fates of these two women, through the pain..."

NFS: The film is segmented into chapters, with title cards arriving every so often featuring an upcoming quote that has yet to be uttered. Were those "chapter breaks" written into the screenplay, and if so, how did you affect the flow of your work?

Mavropsaridis: That was already something Lanthimos had thought about in the editing of the cut from the very beginning. The general idea was that he would take different phrases from the script and try them at different moments. We changed the chapters a lot. We even changed the names of the chapters! At some point, I remember a chapter lead the viewer to believe the film was finished (but it wasn't) and so we had to change the cut so people wouldn't think it was finished, and it went on. The ideas were used differently throughout, but the idea was there from the beginning.

NFS: There's a moment early on in the film where Abigail wails in pain as she attempts to scrub the dirty floors. You then use a match-on-action cut to show Queen Anne wailing in a very different kind of pain. Were there other editing choices along the way where you tried to draw visual comparisons between the three leading actresses? 

Mavropsaridis: Yes, of course. Because what follows that particular cut is this strange sequence, this mixing of time, between when Abigail goes to collect the medicine and when she goes to the Queen; the editing makes its point there. It's a match cut that you don't usually do without reason. You start connecting the fates of these two women, through the pain and through the action of Abigail going to the woods, taking the medicine, and applying to the Queen's hand. This is also a means to get to know Abigail and to get to know her companion.

It was made obvious in the scene, yes, well, not obvious, but it was made as a point to the narrative. Here we start something new. Also, the music comes in there. You could tell by the music, this monotonous thing, that connects the whole situation.

Rachel Weisz in Yorgos Lanthimos's 'The Favourite,' courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

NFS: The film is, I think it's fair to say, a comedy, and often an exhilarating dry one.  Are you editing for beats of comedic value as well? Or does that come naturally thanks to the screenplay? Are you looking for different edits that emphasize the humor?

Mavropsaridis: We were, and it was Lanthimos's idea for the rhythm of the film, like the old Howard Hawks's films where the actors talk fast and the action is fast. Of course, it was natural at that time to use these comic editing points, and we did it cautiously to a point, like when we inserted Abigail falling from the carriage, trying to make a comic situation there as result of a concept in the editing. That was not in the script, and it was done, in my mind, as a comment on these kinds of films. You can connect it somehow, to even All About Eve and everything. It was an old kind of editing in an otherwise modern film of different parts. It was on that scene where Lanthimos felt we could be more free to expand into different editing forms. That was one of them, this comic situation, yeah.

NFS: If I may choose one moment in which the comedy is derived directly from the edit, however, I would specifically choose Abigail's wedding night, where distracted by the whereabouts of Lady Sarah, she passively provides her husband with a handjob. You cut between the reaction shots of her husband being "serviced" and shots of Abigail in full on paranoia. Could you take us through editing that sequence for maximum comedic effect?

Mavropsaridis: It's somewhat like a slapstick situation, to make things faster. You create this uplifting feeling (and appeal) to make it more intense, so that when the slow down happens, it's deeper. There is a difference in the rhythm and in the motion of this high peak comedy [that lasts] through the very dark ending of the film, I think. 

"Yorgos Lanthimos gives me very few notes, but I do interpret them in the way that I know him. It comes with a creative freedom, but within a partnership, within a universe which is specifically not seen here."

NFS:  What program did you use to edit with?

Mavropsaridis: I'm using Avid Video Composer now because, well,  I've been editing for almost 35 years now and I started on a Moviola. I got into Avid, first of all, because in 1992, it was all we had for computerized editing. That's why I'm using Avid.  It was more friendly to the way I was thinking about editing and the procedure of editing at the time.

NFS: What do you see as being the best type of working relationship between a director and an editor?

Mavropsaridis: I have this ideal relationship with Lanthimos because I do get the time to work on my own. He gives me very few notes, but I do interpret them in the way that I know him. It comes with a creative freedom, but within a partnership, within a universe which is specifically not seen here. Yes, I can move around and that gives me incentive because it's a creative work, a creative work that somehow appears in the editing itself. It gives me satisfaction and I'm happy with that. I think it is a good relationship for the director to know what he is doing, but to also allow his editor his own creative input. There needs to be, of course, a good, positive vibration between them. Many things will then come up due to the fact that you're getting on well with each other. It's a nice vibration environment.     

For more information on 'The Favourite,' click here

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