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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Looking for False Performance Beats”: Editor Fred Raskin on The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell, James Parks and Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight

As the first film to be shot in the Ultra Panavision 70 format since Khartoum in 1966, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight has deservedly garnered a lot of attention for its cinematography; shot in an extra-wide aspect ratio on a 65mm negative, it’s undeniably a spectacular showcase for director of photography Robert Richardson’s visual gifts. Subtler, but perhaps even more impressive, is the contribution of editor Fred Raskin, who assembles the 2.76:1 images like a maestro of space, timing, and movement. At over three hours in its Christmas Day “roadshow” edition, The Hateful Eight doesn’t have an extraneous frame – its balance of dialogue-driven dramatic scenes, sensational bursts of violent action, and palpably brutal winter atmosphere is perfectly calibrated to create a character-driven Western that ranks with the greatest of the genre. Tarantino has often talked of his fondness for Rio Bravo; here he has his Rio Bravo…and his Ride Lonesome…and his The Wild Bunch. Yet this is the least beholden to his influences Tarantino has ever felt; the explicit quotations are minimal, as if the director has simply fully absorbed the great Westerns of the past into his DNA and synthesized them with his own social, political, and emotional obsessions. Raskin’s editing brings razor-sharp clarity to the ideas that are inherent in the script and performances, striking just the right balance between precision and spontaneity. I interviewed him a week after seeing – and being blown away by – his work in an impeccable 70mm presentation at the Academy in Hollywood.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the relationship you formed with Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained and how that transitioned into Hateful Eight.

Raskin: Quentin and I worked side by side for something like eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week for four solid months on Django Unchained. We had very little time, so we pushed through at a breakneck pace to get the movie in shape in time for its Christmas release. As you might expect, our days usually broke down to 70% work and 30% talking about movies. But in that time I gained an even greater appreciation for his skills as a storyteller — he’d suggest trying things that seemed outlandish (like cutting to a flashback of a scene that had taken place five minutes earlier, for example) but worked beautifully. He had a two-minute montage laid out in his head in its entirety, and something that would have taken me days to put together on my own came together in just a few hours. And over the course of that period, I think he came to appreciate my own skills as well, things like cutting action and music editing. So on The Hateful Eight we entered into the process having a mutual respect for each other’s abilities, and there was a greater level of trust between us.

Filmmaker: At what point did you become aware of the new project, and what was your initial response to the script?

Raskin: My introduction to this script was different than any other I’ve ever received (and probably will in the future), as I attended the live read of the screenplay that was staged as a benefit for LACMA’s film program in April of 2014. So my introduction to the whole piece — and its rogues’ gallery of characters — was to see it performed live on stage by about 80% of its principal cast. The movie is broken down into six chapters, and Quentin warned the audience at the very beginning that he’d already completely rewritten the last chapter. So I knew going in that there were rough edges remaining to be worked out. Having said that, I thought the live read was a blast, and having Quentin read the stage directions was akin to having a narrator — one who injected a ton of his own personality into his narration. Given that the movie takes place in primarily two locations, it was perfectly appropriate for the stage, but there were clearly areas that were inherently cinematic in design.

When I received the shooting draft of the script, I learned that a lot more than just the last chapter had changed, and a couple of things came into very clear focus. Firstly, that this was, in many ways, Quentin’s homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing. A small group of characters trapped in an isolated location during a snowstorm, with no certainty as to who can be trusted — and of course, the presence of Kurt Russell in one of the lead roles — there’s really no doubt that Carpenter’s film was an inspiration. But the other thing that struck me was that the movie was dealing with issues of race in a far more direct way than Django Unchained, believe it or not. When the church shooting in Charleston happened, we had the realization that The Hateful Eight was speaking directly to what’s happening in this country right now. We ended up cutting a line of dialogue that referenced South Carolina because it felt as though the picture was intentionally bringing up current events, and likely would have taken the audience out of the movie.  (The line, of course, had been written a year earlier.)

Filmmaker: When does your serious work on a film like this begin?

Raskin: As with any project, my serious work begins on Day 2. Once there is material to work with, I’m able to dive in and start working with it. I was on location in Telluride for this picture, so given the lag time involved in getting the dailies from Telluride to LA, having them telecined and getting them back to Telluride, it might have actually been Day 3. But you get the idea.

Filmmaker: Where are you while Tarantino is shooting? What do your conversations consist of during production?

Raskin: While Quentin was shooting, the process was pretty straightforward: at the end of every shooting day, we would screen the previous day’s dailies and I would take notes based both on Quentin’s comments to me and the specific things at which he laughed during the screenings. (I learned early on during Django that Quentin’s laughter was a pretty good indicator of what he liked.) But as with every production, at a certain point, the dailies screenings stopped and I was left to rely on the script supervisor’s copious notes from the set and my own gut reactions.

During production, Quentin likes to keep his focus on shooting the movie. So while I’m spending my days focused on getting my assembly together, Quentin doesn’t watch a frame of what I’ve done until the shoot has wrapped entirely. His coverage, as I think is apparent from watching his films, is fairly specific; he’s not the type of director who sets up twelve cameras and rolls and rolls and rolls with the intention of making sense of it all in the editing room. He composes elegant shots, always on a dolly or sticks — he avoids handheld and steadicam — and shoots until he gets performances that match or exceed the ones he heard in his head as he was writing the piece. So while he doesn’t feel the need to cover a scene from every angle imaginable, he generally shoots a lot of takes, and determining which of those is the best is often the biggest challenge we face.

The shoot was unique in that there were certain sequences which needed to be filmed while snow was falling. So the cast always had to be prepared to shoot any scene at any time, because if they got snow, they’d be shooting one scene, while if they didn’t, they’d be shooting another. Because of this, the cast really needed to be off-book once the shoot began. Everyone knowing the script that well gave Quentin the ability to shoot eleven-minute long takes if he wanted to, which ended up being great for the performances — I was watching some terrific theatre on a daily basis — and also informed some of the editing choices. If we had an amazing master of a scene playing out in the 2.76:1 aspect ratio, why would we want to cut away from it? There are a handful of shots in the movie that are a couple of minutes long thanks to this, and of course, the trick has been to find an appropriate — and effective — time to return to the coverage.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about that 2.76 aspect ratio. How did the fact that the film was shot in 70mm change your job, both technically and aesthetically?

Raskin: We were cutting digitally, using an HD Avid, working at DNX115. So from a technical standpoint, the process was essentially the same as on any other movie — with one big exception: at the end of every day, I would turn over the work that we’d done to my first assistant, Andrew Eisen. He would then make lists that would go to the film assistants on the movie, Paula Suhy, Michael Backauskas and Bill Fletcher, so that they could conform the 70mm workpicture to match the cut in the Avid. Once a week, we would do a film screening of as much of the movie as we had put together, to make sure that it was playing as well on the big screen as it was on my 60” monitor. Getting to see the cut footage in glorious 70mm was an incredible treat, and those screenings quickly became the highlight of our work week.

Filmmaker: What happens when shooting ends? How quickly do you have an assembly?

Raskin: After the completion of the shoot, Quentin generally takes a well-deserved two-week break and I scramble to get my assembly finished, so that I can show him anything he wants to see when he comes in for the first time. At that point, Quentin shifts his focus completely to cutting. We’ll work a full day and then he’ll go home and watch dailies of the next section we’re going to tackle, taking very thorough notes as he’s doing so. While that’s happening, I’ll be refining the work we did that day, checking all of the edits and smoothing out the sound. When Quentin comes in the next day he’ll usually have narrowed it down to two or three favorite takes for each section of a scene, and we’ll watch them all again until we’ve chosen the one we feel is the best. It is safe to say Quentin immerses himself in the editorial process, which makes sense — he put a tremendous amount of work into the writing and the directing of the piece, and he wants to devote the same amount of energy to its editing.

The moment Quentin and I finish a scene, we send it off to Wylie Stateman and Harry Cohen, our supervising sound editors, to have them design and mix it. Keep in mind that with this picture there was frequently no music in these scenes — and Quentin’s intention was to keep them dry — so they needed to fill the space with everything from wind to rattling shutters to chains, and they had to build all of these elements so that they could function as music. Frequently, the sound design was helping to build the tension in the movie. On top of that, they needed to do a full-on foley pass to cover not only the standard elements — footsteps and body falls — but also keeping alive the handcuff chain that connects John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for the majority of the movie. The goal was to get their sound design pass into the Avid as quickly as possible, so that we would fall in love with it, rather than the the temp effects I’d been working with since production. Both Quentin and I are susceptible to “temp-lock” — falling in love with the sounds we’ve been hearing over and over again whenever we watch the scenes — so the sooner we could get real, tailored effects into the system, the better their chances of survival. If we had any notes, Wylie and Harry would get us replacement sections within a day or two, so that we were always presenting the movie as we intended it. Wylie and Harry and their team have done a stellar job with this movie, and I’m excited to see audiences respond to their work.

Filmmaker: The film has a couple unusual structural devices that work beautifully. Are those by design at the script stage, or do you and Tarantino shuffle scenes and even “chapters” around?

Raskin: Although I’d love to be able to claim the credit for those structural devices, they were all scripted. Quentin has an innate ability to understand just how much he can play with structure without confusing his audience. We did do a bit of experimenting with regard to structural changes, but in nearly every instance we found that the structure as dictated in the screenplay was the best way to tell the story. We were glad that we’d tried different approaches, so that we could feel confident that we’d explored all possible avenues, but in general, the way Quentin had laid out the structure in the shooting draft turned out to be the way it appears in the finished film.

Filmmaker: Was there a lot of extra material that had to be cut? If so, what determines what you keep and what you leave out?

Raskin: There was approximately 40 minutes’ worth of material in my editor’s assembly that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film. Some of the scenes on the cutting room floor were things Quentin knew we weren’t going to use when he showed up in the editing room for the first time. (The screenplay, for example, featured a running gag about rats in the basement of Minnie’s Haberdashery — rats who made a meal out of one of the film’s characters in the last chapter — but Quentin was quite certain from the get-go that that particular gag could be excised without leaving a hint of its existence.) Beyond that, we went on the traditional hunt for scenes or moments that didn’t contribute to story, character or atmosphere, and we got rid of them.

We also looked for anything that seemed redundant, and excised it from the movie. Originally, the fifth chapter ended with a repeat of the sequence of John Ruth and Daisy entering Minnie’s — initially shown in chapter three — this time presented from the perspective of the other characters. But when we laid in the sound of their arrival — also initially seen in chapter three — over the images of the other characters preparing for them, Quentin realized we’d already accomplished the multiple-perspective angle, and the alternate version of the next scene was unnecessary.

We had to be particularly careful when it came to the first two chapters of the movie. While it’s certainly a slow build, it establishes not only the characters, but the way in which the Civil War has affected each of them. Gaining that understanding is essential to the success of the last chapter.

Filmmaker: How early did you have access to Morricone’s score, and if you didn’t have it for a while, what were you using for temp tracks?

Raskin: Morricone wrote his score based on the screenplay — he hadn’t seen any footage when he started writing. He told Quentin he had about ten minutes’ worth of music that he wanted to record, so he sat down to his pages of empty sheet music with a pencil in hand and ended up writing over thirty minutes of music. Not long after the production wrapped, Quentin and I attended some of the recording sessions in Prague, and it was thrilling. I could see the wheels in Quentin’s head turning as the orchestra played, as he found scenes in the movie under which the score would work perfectly. Getting to see Morricone at work was remarkable. He would follow along with his sheet music as the orchestra played and if something didn’t sound right, he’d stop them and actually sing the melodies for them. To be in attendance for that was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The process on Quentin’s movies normally goes like this: from the writing process onward, Quentin has a number of soundtrack cues in mind for any given scene. Once we’ve cut the scene to his specifications, he goes home and listens to vinyl recordings of those soundtrack cues, along with any other options that might have occurred to him along the way, and he brings in his top two or three and we try scoring the scene with those cues in order to determine which one works the best. So on this movie, Quentin basically went through the same process, but he was primarily looking for selections within Morricone’s original Hateful Eight score. (He had a couple of other, more obscure Morricone scores to pull from as well, if he needed to.) Thankfully, the original Morricone music worked beautifully with the scenes — I can’t actually think of them without hearing his music underneath them.

The final scene in the movie was temp-scored with a cue written by a composer other than Morricone. On any other movie, Quentin probably would have just had Mary Ramos, our music supervisor, get the rights to use that particular temp cue and it would appear in the finished film. But Quentin was very respectful of the fact that Morricone had written every single one of the score selections in the film, and he asked The Maestro to write an original piece of music to replace the temp cue. So the last scene in the film is the only one in which Morricone was writing directly to picture. And the cue is one of the most evocative in the movie.

Filmmaker: How do you see the editor’s role in terms of shaping performances? This is probably the best ensemble acting I’ve seen in a movie all year, but it strikes me that it must have been a challenge as an editor to cut scenes with so many actors sharing the frame. How often do you run into problems where one actor’s best take is another’s weakest, and how do you deal with that?

Raskin: That’s a really good question. You have to be vigilant about looking for false performance beats; anything that doesn’t read as honest shouldn’t be in the movie. And you have to hunt through many hours of footage to find the best of the best performances. In a Quentin Tarantino film, much of that is dependent on being familiar with the rhythms of his dialogue. Obviously, when we’re working side-by-side, he’s going to be very vocal about which performances best reflect the voices of the characters as he wrote them, but the more footage you watch, the more it becomes clear what he’s going for.

It’s funny: in any other movie, if the situation occurred in which one actor’s best performance was another’s worst, you’d simply split the frame and combine the two best takes for each actor. But Quentin avoids that type of trickery — he wants to preserve the integrity of the original camera negative, so making something a visual effect was not seen as an option. Having said that, I don’t recall it ever being an issue. Quentin somehow manages to keep his eyes on the whole cast at all times. He doesn’t move on from a particular set-up until he’s got what he needs from every actor in the frame.

I’d say the rehearsal process contributes to this. As I mentioned earlier, with the entire cast having the screenplay memorized, this production was more like theater than a traditional movie. The cast became a very tight-knit group, and they would all stick around to read opposite their fellow cast members, even if one of them was off-screen the whole time. Doing this certainly helped to maintain the consistency of the performances, and this group, as I think is apparent, was operating at a very high level at all times.

Filmmaker: Once you and Tarantino have arrived at a pretty decent cut, what is your fine-tuning process? Do you test the movie by showing it to friends or other filmmakers or anything like that?

Raskin: We do a number of screenings, first for Quentin’s director friends, and then later for a recruited audience or two. Quentin doesn’t do comment cards, nor does he care about numerical scores. The screening process is all about feeling the energy of the audience — where are they laughing, where are they not laughing when we thought they would be, where are we feeling them getting restless, where have we traumatized them and, of course, where are they most engaged with the movie? The adjustments we make following a screening are much more about reacting to the audience’s energy than to their specific comments, although without question, an insightful remark during a post-screening chat will not go ignored if it resonates with us.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

 

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