A look into the genius of editor Matt Friedman, as told to No Film School.
Impeccable editing, for a start. With a solid script, funny actors, and good directing, every film has the potential to be good. But Palm Springs is better than good, in part because you see the fingerprints of Matthew Friedman, A.C.E. everywhere in the film.
Friedman sat down with No Film School to give a glimpse into his mind, his take on editing, eating burritos with Andy Samberg, and controlling the involuntary reaction that is human laughter.
The single most important thing about editing comedy
NFS: Do you think there is an inherent difference between comedy and drama?
Matthew Friedman: It’s exactly the same. Jokes are just another form of storytelling. It’s a more delicate form of storytelling. it’s probably the most delicate form of storytelling because people laugh. People laugh because they have an expectation or prediction of what is going to happen next, and that expectation is broken. And it is the breaking of that expectation that causes this involuntary reaction that we call laughter.
When you're cutting comedy, you have to be extremely careful not just about the punchline, but the setup. The setup is creating space for the audience to form the expectation. If you don't give the audience a chance to form the expectation – they will not laugh.
A great example of how an editor can fuck this up is if you present the story information, which the audience needs to create that expectation, and then, in that minuscule amount of time that it takes the audience's brain to form the expectation, you place a picture cut. By doing that, you’re presenting the audience with new visual information. That takes brainpower. And that distracts from the formation of the expectation. So even a misplaced cut can stomp on a laugh.
Matthew Friedman: Understanding why people react to things is crucial for cutting anything. It is especially crucial to protect laughs, but at the heart of it, it’s because every frame matters. Every frame that you put in when you're building a joke is there for a specific reason. In a joke, that specific reason might be giving the audience that fraction of a beat that their brains need to involuntarily form the expectation of what's going to come next.
And then subverting it before they have a chance to go the next logical step and say, "Wait a minute, I'm in a comedy. This is what I'm expecting to happen. Its obviously not going to be this, what do I think is going to happen instead?" And all of this in the audience minds happens to a large extent involuntarily and…
Friedman: I'm sorry, what was the question?
Friedman: I just did it, you laughed. And you know why you laughed? You laughed because I took a beat, I let you form the expectation that I was going to say something really insightful, and instead I broke that expectation and said, "Wait, I don't even know what I'm talking about!"
Let's say this [article] was a scene in a film, and we were cutting it. As the editor, I have complete control over the length of that pause up there. If I cut that pause too short, it's not going to be funny. If I cut it too long, it's not going to be funny, because I'm going to tip my hat that there's a joke coming. You must protect those pauses, which most of the time come from the actor’s comedic timing, and protecting the integrity of that timing when you must cut. In some instances, if something didn't go right on the set and you don't have the timing that you need, you create that timing.
In every film I do, there are at least one or two places where I will go into a single shot of a character delivering a punchline, and I will either drop in to slow motion to expand the moment between the setup and the punchline just a bit, or I will go slightly into fast motion to compress that moment just a bit.
Jokes are just another form of storytelling. It’s a more delicate form of storytelling.
What you probably won’t realize when you watch Palm Springs
NFS: As an editor, what was it like to be editing a loop, where you're repeating footage over and over again?
Friedman: We wanted the repetitions to be soul-crushing to the characters, not the audience.
The resets [when characters wake up in the same day] are exactly the same for the secondary characters. For their performances on resets, we always use exactly the same take, exactly the same footage, exactly the same performance. But they're not repeats for the characters who are stuck in the loop. For them, we always used different performances. Even if it wasn't readily apparent that it was a different performance, and you would have to go back and watch, its a different performance. Guaranteed.
We did that with all of the loops and all of the resets. And that's how it ended up not feeling repetitive to the audience.
We wanted the repetitions to be soul crushing to the characters, not the audience.
How Friedman cut the epic life-in-the-time-loop montage but wasn’t sure it would work
Friedman: When I initially pieced that sequence together, I thought, "There's no fucking way this is going to work." It’s too long, it’s repetitive, in that the situations are different, but it is the same thing over and over and over again. [Them] having fun with no fallout. And on top of that, stylistically and conventionally, you go into a one song montage, and that's what ties it all together.
This one had not one, not two, but three songs. There’s no way it should have worked. And I remember when Andy Samberg came in and looked at a cut before we first screened it, he said the same thing: "I don't know how this is going to work."
We decided to leave everything in there, knowing that it was too long, and whatever the audience didn't laugh at, we would cut.
NFS: Do you go to the test screenings?
Friedman: Oh for sure. Because you can feel it. If you're cutting a movie and you sit in a room with an audience of 40 people, you can palpably feel when they are disconnecting from the movie. And that's really important information because it always points to where a problem needs to be solved. I'll be damned if people didn't laugh through the entire thing. We poked around, talking to the people who were in that early screening, trying to ascertain if they felt it was too long without sort of poisoning the well. Nobody thought it was too long.
So we went in and we did a lot of work to try to tie it together as one single entity even though it was in three very distinct pieces. We did a lot of work with the music transitions between the two. The first chunk is a song, the middle chunk is a song, and our composer actually created a bridge for us to tie those two pieces together. The second section ends with that shot of them in the window running away from the bar, screaming. And the source music that they were dancing to is gone. Then it cuts to this scene that takes place at the wedding between Randy and Sarah where she goes, "I missed you, I want to meet you in the bathroom." And what we did here was start the third song, very quietly, playing as source in the wedding reception, so that it would not feel like a continuation of the montage. It stays as source through that whole dialogue scene and then comes up full under the bathroom where people are already laughing really hard, so you kind of laugh over the transition, and without really even consciously noticing, we've placed you in to the third part of this montage.
Friedman: That sequence was probably the most complicated I've ever worked on because it posed so many inherent challenges and unconventionalities. But it wasn’t hard, it was just about letting the film speak to you about what it wanted to be.
And in the end, it must have worked because people seem to like it.
"When I initially pieced that sequence together, I thought, "There's no fucking way this is going to work."
How Friedman can fix any film with a simple trick: make every frame count
Friedman: I do a lot of fix-it work. I'll go in and people will say, “The movie isn't really working, people are getting bored. We cut out a bunch of scenes to make it shorter but that's still not working.” And what I do is, I go through and I look for these little tiny moments, these three or four frames, or eight frames. I ask, “Does this character need to blink after they say the line? This stammer, this "uh" that they say in the middle of there?” If they're not stammering for a reason, we take it out.
What always ends up happening is, I take 15 to 20 minutes out of the movie and put back entire scenes that the previous editor had cut. The removal of those scenes as a whole was damaging the story and making it harder for the audience to connect.
Because it wasn't like a length issue per se, it was a story issue. All these extra frames weren't actively telling the story, and when you give an audience frames that are not contributing to the story, they disconnect.
Every frame matters. Every frame in the movie should be there for a reason. And every cut in the movie has been litigated by me, down to the frame.
That doesn't mean that it’s cut fast-paced. The Farewell is a great example of this because it had huge chunks of time in it where there was nothing physically happening on screen, but those moments were very specifically designed. The intention, in that case, was that Lulu, the director, wanted the audience to partake in the feeling that the characters were stuck and powerless and having to sit in their sadness. That's the story information.
The instant that we felt we had told that story, down to the frame, we get out. If young editors can get experienced in doing that, and understand how to be vicious and focused on the story, it serves you very well.
"it wasn't like a length issue per se, it was a story issue."
How a fax machine leads to burritos with Andy Samberg
NFS: How did you get started as an editor?
Friedman: I'm going to date myself, but back when David Letterman was still in the midnight slot and edgy, he had just started doing his Top 10 list gags. So I made up a top 10 list of the reasons that a film should hire me.
"Two words: good at math," was one of them. One was "never been the cause of a major international diplomatic incident." I was living in East Tennessee at the time, and I faxed these out to films that were shooting on the east coast. One of the films called me back pretty quickly and was like, "Anybody who can make us laugh this much has to come down and work with us. We don't have any money though, so it would be an unpaid internship. We have an art department and editorial open." And I can't draw for shit, so it was a pretty easy choice.
Friedman went to Atlanta, stayed with a friend’s family, and worked as the assistant under talented editor Emma Hickox A.C.E.
Friedman: She really liked the work I did. I was finding that I was learning so much from her. More than I was learning in film school. And at the end of the show, she said, "Hey, if you move out to LA, I will hire you on the next film I do because you're a really good assistant and you learn really quickly and you have a good attention to detail.”
So Friedman packed his bags and headed to LA, and continued as an assistant editor until one day, he got his chance for the big time.
Friedman: There was a movie that was small enough that Peter [Teschner, editor of early Betty Thomas films] couldn't do it, and Betty called me up. She was like, "I think you're ready, let's do it." And that was John Tucker Must Die. It was my first studio feature. Ted Gagliano who was the head of post at Fox at the time, was extraordinarily supportive. The whole studio was really... of a first-time editor. That's not often the case, because studios understand how important that position is and how an inexperienced editor can truly fuck something up. But they were great, it came out really well, and I have basically been cutting ever since.
NFS: Which brings us to Palm Springs. How did you meet the team? I read this film was Max Barbakow's first feature.
Friedman: It was. I was actually introduced to the team by one of the producers, Dylan Sellers, on another film which was a re-cut situation. They had a film and it wasn't working. I went in, and in a very short amount of time, went through this method that I just described to you, and got the film to a place where everybody was really happy. He saw what I had done and how fast I had done it and he said, "Yeah, you should come and meet these guys." So he brought me in to meet Andy Samberg, who was one of the producers, Becky Sloviter, Max, and Akiva, who is Andy Samberg's creative partner.
We all sat down and talked about the movie, and I think burritos were involved. I walked out of that meeting going, "This is going to be a great situation." Everybody was very down to Earth and nice. And I really loved the script. The script is incredibly efficient, but also incredibly layered. In a way, the script mirrors my philosophy: every single thing that's in there is there for a reason. And then there's stuff that's in there for a reason that you don't even notice on the first five or six reads. For instance, when the Roy character first shows up in the movie, he walks in through the wedding reception and he grabs an hors d'oeuvre off the tray and goes, "Tuna?" And the waiter goes, "Yes." He takes a bite and sort of goes "eh." Then when Nyles shows up at his house later, he's in the kitchen and he's cooking, do you remember what he's cooking?
NFS: Big tuna steaks.
Friedman: He's a tuna aficionado. Does that matter to the movie? No, but it is a depth of character that, if you have the ability to put that in, and it doesn't hurt anything else, why not? There’s stuff like that layered all throughout the script and the movie, which is pretty miraculous in itself. They had a very tight schedule. Usually what happens in that situation is all these little flourishes that are not necessarily plot-essential are the first things that get dropped in deference to making your day. And [first-time director] Max Barbakow somehow figured out a way to protect those moments. Hats off to him for that, because I really do think it contributes a great amount to why the film feels so solid.
Thank you, Matt!