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“The Film Kept Building in Meaning Throughout the Time Working On It”: Madeleine Gavin on Editing I Think We’re Alone Now

I Think We're Alone Now

With Reed Morano’s I Think We’re Alone Now in theaters, we’re running this short interview with its editor, Madeleine Gavin, conducted earlier this year before the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. For more on the film, see Meredith Alloway’s interview with Morano.

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?

Gavin: I worked with Reed Morano on her feature directorial debut, Meadowland, and when I Think We’re Alone Now was getting set up, Reed sent me the script. 

When Reed and I worked together on Meadowland, we restructured and reimagined large swaths of the film and so we knew we had a similar philosophy when it came to the editing room. We both have the instinct to make something experiential rather than solely narrative or expositional, and we share the belief that, after the first cut of a film, the script sort of goes out the window. It’s not that the script isn’t honored, because it very much is, but it’s the idea that if you let the film evolve organically, without the pressure of feeling married to an arrangement of scenes, or to specific dialogue etc., then the final film will actually speak more to the core of what the writer was going for than if you diligently followed what’s on the page. It seemed natural that Reed and I work together again.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Gavin: It’s customary that the first cut of a film be done exactly as the script indicates. Regardless of how strongly an editor might feel that a line or a scene should be removed or reordered, that first cut has to be laid out as written. So during the shoot, I watch the dailies and get swept up into the world of the film. I focus a lot on performance and finding the strongest takes, playing with POV and tone, musical ideas etc. but I don’t allow myself to give in to the often strong temptation to actually start shaping the film outside of what’s been written.

I think of the assembly cut as a common denominator for the director and me. We both get to watch the script as something experienced in time. And therefore we both witness the structural challenges, performance challenges, story issues etc, together. We also get to experience the potential for transformation. After the assembly cut, the real magic of editing begins.

I Think We’re Alone is an atmospheric film about loneliness and the need for human connection. It is not a film with a lot of action or traditional plot twists. There’s not even any dialogue until nearly 14 minutes in. So early on, we knew that creating and sustaining momentum was going to be a challenge.

Since in large part the film is a love/friendship story, it was clear that much of the arc relied on teasing out the growing attachment of the two characters, Del and Grace (played by Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning.) So part of the structure was going to be almost unconsciously driven and not easily discernible as structure at all. We had to try and find a way to engage the audience in a journey they weren’t always aware they were on, and still hopefully allow them to feel that they were being guided somewhere intentionally.

Another thing we kept in mind was the idea that we should never forget for long that we are in a post-apocalyptic world. This didn’t mean that every moment had to be intense. The characters in the film do ordinary things. But it meant making sure that if we treat the world as ordinary, we do so consciously and decisively in the face of this utterly devastated world. That way the ordinariness contains tension in itself.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Gavin: As is often the case, there was a lot of restructuring of scenes. Dialogue was cut, or added in ADR. Scenes were removed altogether or reimagined as something other than originally scripted. For instance, there’s a scene where Grace projects an old black and white film for Del. Ultimately we felt that scene was emotionally redundant and slowed down a part of the second act. We ended up moving it and turning it into a dream sequence, with Del remembering not only human beings, but Grace herself as something nostalgic.

Reed and I are both semi-obsessed with sound as a story-telling element and we thought of sound as the third lead character in the film. One way we grappled with creating momentum was to use shifting tones, and sound was a part of that. So for instance, a humorous scene or a seemingly banal scene of everyday life might end with jarring sound cuts, dropping us into a windswept world, reminding us of the potent reality that these may be the last two people on earth. Or it might cut to blaring music as we jump into a subjective POV of a character. Shifting sounds and emotional tones became part of the tension that drove the film forward.

We asked ourselves questions throughout the edit: what does emptiness sound like? Does it really sound like nothing at all? This is a world with no cars, no airplanes, no electrical grid, no humans but does that necessarily mean that what our character is experiencing isn’t deafening? Would wind sound louder in an empty world? Would it echo in the vastness of the space we were in? We played with the idea of sounds you couldn’t hear but could feel. We worked with literal sound in some scenes, impressionistic sound in others and emotional sound in still others. We played with the idea of memory; sound reminding us of a world that no longer exists. In my avid project for the film, I had 37 tracks of audio and I used them to piece apart stems from some of the composer, Adam Taylor’s amazing music. Sometimes we would layer his stems and offset them slightly to create echoes. We used speed changes on sound, reversed it, used EQs and reverbs and all sorts of other methods that the avid allows.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Gavin: I came to editing from a love of writing and photography. I also came with a lifelong love of puzzles and the conviction that there is an organic structure to things if you can just find it. There’s something magical that happens in the editing room that was palpable and familiar to me from writing and from the experience of being in a darkroom. It was like watching a story come to life but on a multi-dimensional level. In terms of influences, that’s a longer conversation but so many European and American films of the 1960s/ 1970s have been inspirations for me, among many others.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Gavin:I cut on Avid. I’ve cut a couple of documentaries on Final Cut Pro and I’ve used Premiere but for long-form, Avid is definitely my preference. For short-form they all have great qualities.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Gavin: This film is made up of so many different editing styles and because the plot was somewhat malleable, there were several instances where we were able to use a scene in one way, only to change it later to be used for something else entirely.

There were many challenging scenes but one was a scene where Grace finds photos of people who have died in the town. I initially cut that scene with an increasing level of frenzy as she first discovers the photos in Del’s drawer and then slowly becomes overwhelmed with the reality of who these people are. Throughout the scene, the cutting went from methodical to full-blown jump cuts, jumping position, jumping axis. Our hope was that we were communicating her rising awareness of death all around her and of the tragedy of the lives lost. But playing that scene for friends, we discovered that some people thought the increasing frenzy was not about the awareness of loss at all but rather about some new plot point that was about to be revealed. It was as if the cutting style was playing into this expectation we have from watching films that there must be a plot twist waiting in the wings. We realized people were anticipating something we weren’t going to deliver on so we felt we had to go in a different direction. We ended up creating many versions of that scene and finally settled on a much more toned down interpretation. It was sufficient and it didn’t mislead the audience but we were never wildly excited about it. A few days before the mix, Reed said she felt like we had kind of chickened out by not fully realizing the emotion in the scene. She was totally right. We looked at the film and realized that so much had changed that we could get away with a more dramatic version. So I pulled out some older cuts of the scene, chose one, did a new and improved version of it and put it in. In retrospect it’s amazing to me that we kept the tame version in as long as we did.

There’s a point in the film when the world gets turned on its head. Everything we thought we knew is called into question and we no longer know what the reality of the world is. The transition to this “new reality” was tough and lost some people in our initial screening because they didn’t realize a transition had been made and were unsure what was real and what was not. We had very little footage to work with but we knew we had to allow people time to question and then track what was going on. We ended up extending time by using some visual motifs we had established earlier in the cut. I then used a number of sound design elements, distorting them to suggest we were entering an altered space, and then gradually bringing them back to normalcy and the new reality. These distortions as well as the lengthening of time helped guide the audience.

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.)

Gavin: The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and yet it was shot in densely populated towns just north of New York City. Needless to say, much of our Vfx budget went to removing cars and other signs of life from the frame.

A month before our mix began, we received a grant from Dolby for an Atmos Mix. This had a huge impact on our film because we were able to take the environment we had begun to create on the avid and turn it into a far more immersive experience than we would otherwise have been able to. In addition, our post-production sound team (headed by Tony Volante and Dan Timmons) added amazing elements to the sound palette Reed and I had created.
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?

For me, the film kept building in meaning throughout the process of working on it. It had always been a film about isolation and the need for human contact but on the page the tone was much more tongue-in-cheek than in the finished film. This change wasn’t unexpected though because before shooting ever began, Reed and I talked about trying to tease out the emotional depth in the story. As a director, Reed is always interested in pursuing the emotional core of whatever story she’s telling. I Think We’re Alone Now is no exception.

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