“Are People Eating Popcorn or Using Their Mind?”: Editor Alex Kopit on Dead Pigs
Alex Kopit served as an assistant editor on past Sundance premieres Be Kind Rewind (2008) and The Messenger (2009). He returns to the festival in 2018 as the editor of Dead Pigs, the debut feature from writer/director Cathy Yan. The film is a mosaic of stories in modern-day Shanghai connected by a mysterious occurrence: a stream of floating pig carcasses. Below, Kopit discusses editing the film so that “the various stories could interweave and support each other.”
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?
Kopit: I’d worked with Mick, one of our producers, before, and he brought me in to meet the director. I read the script a few times, then met with Cathy. We talked about the story and moments that connected with me. We talked about what she was thinking for various parts of the film. I really liked and connected with the script – I was excited and passionate about it from the beginning. From the first meeting with Cathy we went straight into discussing the characters and story. The story collaboration started within the first few minutes of our meeting; it was an exciting collaboration and we had great energy together. As for being chosen, one of the things that I do is prepare with script notes. I mark it up. I had questions and saw connections between characters that I was curious about. It’s a multi-protagonist narrative and those are complicated to put together as an editor. I was excited about the ways that the various stories could interweave and support each other. I think Cathy saw that. Also, there’s a rather unexpected scene at the end of the film, and I connected with it right away. I think that helped seal the deal.
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?
Kopit: I had three goals – first, to find the story that each character wanted to be in. Find the story that was right for that character. To listen to them – to find the best version of their stories. Second, how did those stories support each other? How could they dance? And especially, how can we transition between them so we were increasing the tension and expectation all while avoiding repeat plot points? We had to choose what was the best order, which character’s crisis moment was going to be the one that would turn the movements and the acts within the movie. And third, how can we conserve the energy of the audience so they are ready for the moments where we want to take them deep, and open to the moments where we want it to be simply a good time. A lot of what we were doing was thinking whether this scene should play more dramatically or more fantastically. Do we want the audience to laugh here or hold its breath? Are people eating popcorn or using their mind? There were some very dramatic scenes in the film, and we tried to prime our audience for those moments by letting the film wash over them for the previous sequences. We wanted it to be a fun watch! I think we got it by the final cut.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Kopit: I spent a lot of time beat outlining the movie just from the screenplay. Turning points, plot points. I spent time thinking about if I were to name sequences, what would they be? What was the turning point? We made scene boards where every scene in the movie was given a name and a picture – it wasn’t about identifying the scene, it was about capturing the dramatic moment that the scene was about. Then we put them all up on the wall and got to work! We spaced them in sequences. If the scene was a turning point we actually turned the card on the wall. A lot of our process was spent standing up looking at the pictures of our movie and talking about how the scenes and sequences are supporting each other. Are they in the right order? Are the stakes high enough in the last three scenes of an act, for example? With a movie like this, which has so many characters and stories, they must support each other very delicately. And we screened a lot. Near the end we screened every one or two weeks. It was useful to us to watch the movie in a variety of environments.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Kopit: I’ve always been interested in story and structure. The puzzle of it. What strings do you pull at the beginning of the story to affect the ending? I love discovering those invisible threads. As a kid, I always knew I wanted to work in film, I just didn’t know in what way. After college, I was a bartender and met as many people as I could. I also started a production company and got myself an Avid. I hustled in the micro-budget, no budget indie scene. I worked in all aspect of production and post. When I found myself enjoying editing more and producing less, that’s when I knew I wanted to be an editor. My first feature was with former Jerky Boys and now dear friend Kamal Ahmed. Later, when I had the opportunity to work as an assistant to Walter Murch, I jumped at it. From Walter I learned to look at all the logical steps we can take as filmmakers to coax the meaning out of a story. I use that in every movie I edit now. In the beginning, I did a fair amount of assisting on larger-budget films while editing smaller ones. But about the time my son was born – he’s six now – I decided to stop assisting and started editing full time.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Kopit: I used an Avid. I was editing with subtitles and the Avid’s SubCap tool worked well with our workflow. Also, it’s a system that the Chinese post-production facilities were familiar with and that helped make our workflow more dependable and simple.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Kopit: The climax (spoiler alert) at the end was the most difficult. How well the scene played was extremely affected by the 12 minutes preceding it. The drama of the climax worked best when it surprised the audience. It couldn’t get too serious prior to that moment. It had to stay fun – it needed to remain an adventure so that the audience would be surprised and affected by the dramatic turn that one of our characters takes.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit? (Feel free to ignore this question if it’s not applicable.)
Kopit: We wrote and created new scenes with VFX, ADR, and graphics. There were a few scenes where we used comps and VFX to combine the elements of our story so they would time out together. There was one scene near the end, for instance, that we were able to conceive of in post. We wanted the story of the pigs to be present at the end of the film. So we created an actual weather storm with VFX and sound design to join the story of the dead pigs floating down the river with the emotional storm that’s about to engulf our characters. Being able to write that scene and have it executed so well in VFX helped set the stage for the final movement of our film. We also had a character of a news reporter and wrote ADR for reporting to play over scenes in order to help frame our story. At one point we wrote a character’s business presentation so it could play fullscreen as its own piece. All these elements helped ground and drive our stories. We used all the tools we had!
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?
Kopit: When a movie works well, at the end, the characters come alive. They become more vibrant and play amongst themselves. It’s like you let go and the characters live on their own. But more than that, the character of their environment, and how we treated it was a far bigger player in the collective than I had expected. The relationship each of our characters had with their world – and more specifically their world in modern China – was as important as the relationships they had with each other. Finding the right tone to paint that relationship was an enormous part of supporting the dramatic relationship between the audience and our stories. I didn’t expect the dramatic scenes to be so affected by the choices we made in tone when representing the character’s relationship with their environment in scenes previously. We chose to portray real and frightening situations with a bit more fun and fancy. And that gave the audience license to commit to the lows and highs from a grounded place. This is a movie about five characters affected by a changing modern China – and creating the right tone with how we portrayed their connection to (or conflict with) the changing China greatly affected how grounded the audience felt while watching the movie. Framing this film, setting the stage, plays a big role in how successfully it connects with us.