“The Unconventional Structure We Wanted”: Editor Katie Flaxman on Killing Ground
Katie Flaxman has edited 35 shorts, TV series, fiction films and documentaries in the past 12 years. Her most recent feature, Killing Ground, made its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week. A violent thriller from director Damien Power, the film tells the story of a nightmarish camping trip in the Australian woods. Below, Flaxman discusses the film’s non-linear structure, her techniques for “storyboarding” a film in the editing suite and the importance of POV in thrillers.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Flaxman: Damien and I have been friends and then collaborators for a long time. I edited his first short film, Peekaboo, in 2011 and have been lucky enough to cut most of his projects since then. I’d read drafts of Killing Ground as far back as eight years ago so had a good understanding of Damien’s intentions and vision for the film. After watching the project evolve for so long, it was terrific to be part of making it finally come to life.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Flaxman: One of the striking features of Killing Ground is its non-linear narrative. The big goal for us was to maintain this unique structure but make sure the audience didn’t get too lost along the way, nor did we want them to ever get ahead of the narrative. We also wanted to make sure the jumping time frames did not disrupt the audience’s connection with the characters. Finally, Killing Ground is a thriller so we had to balance the film so that the flashbacks and present scenes were juxtaposed in a way that created maximum suspense and tension in each other. We wanted to maintain a momentum throughout both time-spaces.
As with all films, we of course also wanted to make sure the audience identified and empathized with our central protagonists (and antagonists too, or at least understand them). We spent a lot of time going through the performances with a fine-tooth comb to make sure we’d selected what felt like the most authentic, character-driven moments. We had such a talented and hard-working cast, especially Ian Meadows, Aaron Pederson, who is a veteran of Aussie film and TV, and Aaron Glenane, who was a revelation, so that helped enormously.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Flaxman: I always create a storyboard for the edit suite by printing out screen-shots of each scene and sticking them on the wall. It’s a super handy tool for seeing the film at a glance and restructuring scenes easily. Once we had the initial assembly, we spent a lot of time rearranging these scene/screen-shots and experimenting with the structure. Scenes would be exiled to the “Deleted” section only to be resurrected a few passes later and find themselves in a completely different part of the film. Ultimately, the finished film maintained the unconventional structure we wanted but was more simplified with less oscillation between time-frames than originally scripted.
Audience feedback was essential in helping us understand if the edit was working and how we could sharpen it. Each time we finished a pass of the film we would screen it, even to just a small handful of people. Damien and I were so familiar with every frame, we needed to test if what we thought was suspenseful felt the same way to an audience and also how far we could push the violence. One of the key violent scenes in the film, for example, plays out in what we hoped was excruciating real-time. It’s rhythmically very different to the rest of the film and we could only know if it was working by screening to an audience.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Flaxman: I started in the business as an assistant editor in television. I then completed my master’s in drama editing at the Australian Film Television and Radio and then went on to assisting on feature films and editing short films and factual television. Eventually I moved into editing documentaries and feature films and a lot of my work is still in factual television. I really enjoy both factual and drama cutting and the different storytelling challenges and opportunities they present. I feel lucky to be able to work in both worlds.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Flaxman: We cut Killing Ground on Avid. I wish I could offer a more technical explanation as to why but it was the system available at the post-production facility we were working with! It worked really well for us though. Part of the edit was remote (during the shoot, I was in Melbourne and the assistant editor was in Sydney). The assistant could easily email me Avid bins to add to my project each day. The post pathway was super smooth and efficient.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Flaxman: One of the scenes that was particularly tricky was the climactic moment wherein all four central characters are united for the first time after very different experiences getting to this point. The scene is unfolding as another character looks on from a hidden vantage point. This gave us lots of options as to how we were viewing the scene and through whose eyes. Damien and I had talked a lot in the lead-up about how POV is used in thrillers and here we got to really play with it. We used the character’s POV to mask violence that otherwise felt too strong and to sell practical stunts. This is a pivotal moment for our main character has to make the choice that leads to the rest of the film. We had to feel for him and what he is witnessing and empathize with his helplessness while also experiencing the fear and horror of the scene for ourselves, so the scene had to do a lot! A little behind the-scenes trivia about this scene is that when the crew went to shoot pick-ups for it days later, they found the location had been burnt down by arsonists.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Flaxman: One of the interesting discoveries we made was how some scenes that felt tense and suspenseful in the script actually had the opposite effect when they were filmed and edited. The reason being, they were often red herrings and false alarms. We discovered that rather than putting the audience in a place where they were always on edge and unsettled, these “red herring” scenes were actually deflating the tension of the film. Every time the scene ended and led to nothing plot or character-wise, the tension was lost and we had to work to rebuild it in the next scenes. We didn’t even realize it was happening until the audience told us. We cut out all the moments that didn’t pay off in one way or another and it’s a tighter, more tense film because of it.