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“The Feedback Screenings were Essential”: Editor Colin Campbell on The Hole in the Ground

James Quinn Markey in The Hole in the Ground (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The feature directorial debut from Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin, The Hole in the Ground follows the ominous goings-on after a couple and their young child move to a new cottage in rural Ireland (where their neighbors include Aki Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen). Next to the cottage is the titular hole in the ground, and that causes all kinds of problems as their child is possibly possessed. Via email, editor Colin Campbell discussed his latest collaboration with longtime friend Lee Cronin.

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?

Campbell: Director Lee Cronin and I had been friends since our teenage years; we were essentially the two film nerds in our school. I’ve been lucky enough to cut all of Lee’s previous short films, so it seemed a natural fit for us to work together on his debut feature. Over the years we’ve established a strong working relationship. I can anticipate what Lee wants from a scene and he trusts my instinct on editorial matters. Although our tastes are quite different, we complement each other well.

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? 

Campbell: The script written by Lee and Stephen Shields is very strong—although we experimented with repositioning and removing a lot of scenes, particularly in act two, it turned out we didn’t have to deviate from the original structure wildly. We felt that the most important editorial elements of the film were two-fold: firstly, to create and maintain a growing tension throughout the runtime; secondly, to focus the film entirely on the point of view of Sarah, our heroine. The latter would inform the former; by putting the audience in Sarah’s shoes as much as possible we could control the drip-feed of information and keep them squirming.

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

Campbell: Seána Kerslake’s performance as Sarah is so strong that it made our task relatively straightforward. She can convey a lot with very little—tiny gestures and changes of posture can have a huge effect on a cinema screen, and Seána is outstandingly talented in this regard. I was very conscious of not overcutting any of the scenes. I think the performances of good actors are best left as untouched as possible. A less confident director than Lee might have been tempted to tighten up sequences in order to get to key plot moments more quickly, but I think the extra breaths that he allowed in the film have a cumulative positive effect on creating the psychological unease we were after. The feedback screenings were essential in ironing out problems with story clarity and pacing that can begin to get overlooked after you’ve been watching the film for several months.

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

Campbell: I attended the National Film School of Ireland, where it quickly became clear that editing was the area which suited my abilities and temperament. Professionally I started working on corporate projects and gradually shifted to commercials and TV shows, before making the break into feature films five years ago. I’ve been extremely fortunate in finding very diverse projects so far – from horror and comedy to thrillers and prison dramas. Each filmmaker I’ve collaborated with has taught me a huge amount, as I didn’t progress through the more traditional assistant editor/apprentice route.

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

Campbell: I use Avid Media Composer. It’s the most reliable and robust editing software available.

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

Campbell: There’s a scene featuring a school talent show towards the end of act two which had a lot of components to bring together, in terms of performance, blocking and sound design in particular. After a lot of experimentation we found that cutting the scene in a fairly straightforward manner was the way to go—although the sound design is complex, the picture cut itself is quite simple. Anything flashy that I tried felt incongruous to the rest of the film. It’s also no harm that James Quinn Markey is so good at creeping audiences out.

Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?

Campbell: Lee was very keen to use practical effects as much as possible, but we needed some beautiful VFX work from Digital District to bring the sinkhole to life. It’s difficult to get the timing of VFX scenes to work at first, as you’re often cutting with rough comps, animatics and sometimes plain storyboards and title cards to fill in the blanks, but continuous communication was very helpful in that regard. Other than that, you have to trust your own sense of rhythm to get the scene feeling right.

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?

Campbell: We hadn’t initially expected the film to have such a strong psychological strain, but as soon as rushes started coming in it was obvious that this was the direction we should push towards. That’s a testament to the performances and direction, as well as the lighting of DP Tom Comerford. The tone of the film was discovered as we progressed through the edit—you have to be flexible enough to follow the nature of the rushes rather than trying to impose a style on them. Hearing the gasps, jumps and nervous laughter while watching the film with an audience is a real pleasure; it shows we’ve done something right.

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