“I Interviewed and Emphasized My Desire for the Film to be ‘Female Gaze-y'”: Editor Catherine Haight on Puzzle
Catherine Haight worked as an assistant editor for a decade before she landed the gig to edit the pilot episode of HBO’s Girls. From there, she went on to edit for several prominent half-hour TV series, including New Girl, Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent. Haight worked as the editor on Puzzle, the new film from director Marc Turtletaub (producer of Little Miss Sunshine and Safety Not Guaranteed) and writer Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy). The film tells the story of a suburban housewife (Kelly Macdonald) who discovers a passion for puzzle-solving competitions. Below, Haight speaks with Filmmaker about the influence of Jill Soloway and how the film’s ending was “concocted in the editing room” and not in the script.
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?
Haight: I was looking specifically to edit a drama, and my agents sent me the script for Puzzle. I absolutely loved it and wanted very much to work on it. I interviewed and emphasized my desire for the film to be “female gaze-y,” for the story to be told from a woman’s point of view, and all that that entailed. As an editor I felt that I brought lots of experience working on projects that explore this territory to the table, and would approach the work with that understanding and perspective. The director responded to what I had to say, apparently, because I got the job.
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?
Haight: My goal for every project is to tell the story the best way possible and to explore the themes and characters as clearly and as creatively as we can – to put the viewer in the protagonist’s shoes and make the audience feel something. For Puzzle specifically, this meant making viewers understand and relate to Agnes and to go on the journey with her. I was always looking at ways to improve the film by focusing on keeping Agnes as the emotional heart of the film. Whenever we shaped or modified a scene, or cut one out entirely, it was always in order to tell Agnes’ journey more clearly and honestly. I also never wanted to lose the small, emotional moments that might not add to the plot of the film but that enhance our understanding of the characters and make us relate to them more.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Haight: Feedback screenings were very important to our process; because the film is a very quiet, small story audiences were with us from the get go, and were often ahead of the story. So we always wanted to keep moving forward, but not cut so much out as to feel rushed. The first and last acts of movies are always tricky, and Puzzle was no different. We spent a lot of time finessing the first 15 minutes of the film to get the right balance of Agnes’ world before it starts to open up: not so much that audiences are bored or lose patience with the film, but just enough so that we truly can understand the smallness, the quietness, the simplicity of her life. We also spent a good amount of time reinventing the ending. Two different endings were shot, and we ended up with an entirely different third ending that was concocted in the editing room. It took lots of trial and error to get to the place where we were all happy with where Agnes ends up. Marc and I also often would do passes on the film with one goal in mind: let’s focus on the chemistry between Robert and Agnes this time, or let’s see what we can do to make Louie a bit more compassionate. We also zeroed in on Agnes as much as possible and realized very early on that the places where we wanted to lose time were with the smaller side characters like Agnes’ children. So we scaled back there quite a bit, even going too far at one point, until we added some things back and found the right balance.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Haight: I got out of school and got a PA job for an Animal Planet show called The Aquanauts. Eventually the show needed someone in editorial to help log all the footage that was coming in so I moved into the editorial department. I started by learning how to log (in Avid) and over the course of the following year I learned Avid and the job of an assistant editor pretty throughly. By the end of the year I was an assistant editor on the show. And so it went for the next 10 years – I assisted on many TV series and several feature films. Along the way I cut several shorts and various bits of episodes of shows I was working on, but my big break, so to speak, came when an editor I had assisted in the past recommended me for a tiny pilot that HBO was planning to do on a tight budget…it was called Girls. I interviewed with one of the post executives at HBO and my name was thrown into the mix. Eventually Judd Apatow got involved and the scope of the show got much larger. At the end of the day I got the job, alongside another editor.
I then bounced back to assisting for a bit, a time period during which I cut several short films including one for Jill Soloway called Una Hora Por Favora that got into Sundance in 2012. Eventually I was hired to edit on New Girl, where I cut seven episodes of the first season. I then cut a feature with Jill Soloway called Afternoon Delight. The film went to Sundance in 2013 where Jill won the directing award. I then went on to do three seasons of Transparent and the pilot for I Love Dick, so obviously the biggest influence in my work has been Jill Soloway and the ongoing relationship we’ve had. With Jill I learned how to trust my instincts and take bold risks, two things that have made the work we’ve done together so inspiring and influential for me.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Haight: Avid Media Composer, because it’s the only editing software I’ve ever used and I love it. It does what I need it to, when I need it to, and it does it quickly. I’ve been using it for over 17 years now, and working with Media Composer is second nature to me.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Haight: There wasn’t one scene that was specifically more difficult than others – the first cuts on everything were pretty smooth. What became the most difficult overall editorial aspect of the film was finding the right balance between Agnes’ home life in Connecticut and her new life in New York with Robert, and making sure that as a viewer you were with her and understanding her choices.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Haight: There are not many VFX in the film, but I used them in the usual way we do to build performances and make adjustments with split screens, morphs, speed effects and so forth. But VFX in the way that most people think of them didn’t play much of a roll in the film.
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?
Haight: I think what struck me most about the final film is that while the story itself is quite small, Agnes’ growth and change over the course of the film is monumental. When reading the script I didn’t quite get the full effect of how much Agnes starts out by walking through her life without much passion and self awareness and then discovers and takes control of her power, her destiny and her life.