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“It Was Important to Draw Out Tension and Let the Awkwardness Breathe”: Editor Sean Lahiff on Relic

Bella Heathcote appears in Relic by Natalie Erika James (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Natalia Erika Jame adapts the real-world terror of degenerative disease into a supernatural horror film in Relic. Edna, an aging woman, is feared for by her daughter and granddaughter after she abruptly disappears, leaving in her wake the signs of someone struggling with dementia. One day, she inexplicably returns, and a dangerous entity may have come back with her. Editor Sean Lahiff talks about why he so enjoys editing the “darker side of genre films.” 

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?

Lahiff: My history editing the darker side of genre films brought me onboard Relic. Netflix’s science fiction thriller I Am Mother (Sundance 2019) was my most recent project prior to Relic. I edited Greg McLean’s horror Wolf Creek 2, survival thriller Jungle, and Blumhouse’s supernatural thriller The Darkness—all of which had their fair share of suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension. I’m very proud of Relic and feel it’s a big step in a new direction of storytelling for me as a film editor. 

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?

Lahiff: Efficient story-telling and enveloping our audience were paramount goals to chase while editing. Invisible cutting so audiences could concentrate on our characters was important in the beginning because as emotions unravelled, we were able to draw-out tension and create unsettling pauses between them, ultimately leading to stylised nightmares and palpable suspense with off-kilter cutting and faster-paced action. We were blessed with great actors and and careful not to interrupt compelling performances by over-cutting. 

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

Lahiff: It was important to draw out tension and let the awkwardness breathe to unsettle our audience. We always strived for efficiency with story-telling but never at the cost of spoiling suspense. Thanks to the grace of our producers, Natalie and I had the time and freedom to experiment with the edit to find the most engaging way to tell her story. 

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

Lahiff: After completing University in South Australia, I edited short films and scored assistant editor positions on local feature films. Gradually, as the years passed, I expanded into visual effects editing on Hollywood studio films and worked around the country. Then with the films Swerve and Wolf Creek 2, I launched into film editing and never looked back. I chased exciting stories green-lit for production and gravitated towards the darker genres. Favorite films and filmmakers were important influences, but so was my late film director father with similar tastes—Craig Lahiff. I grew up on Hitchcock, Kubrick and The Twilight Zone, and was exposed to a vast array of style and creativity. I wasn’t satisfied until I was helping to make films myself. It’s been an amazing journey this past decade and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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

Lahiff: I used Avid Media Composer because it is unparalleled when it comes to multiple editors and assistants being involved. The ability to share the project and work together while not even in the same state is unsurpassed by any other editing system. Avid Media Composer’s stability, support and power can do it all. Temp sound-mixing my edit, visual effects and high quality resolution is all achievable without high-end hardware—it all just works and has been the industry standard for feature film editing for decades. On over 35 films I’ve been involved with, all but one was cut on Avid Media Composer, that ratio speaks for itself.

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

Lahiff: The dream sequences were a real challenge. They played an integral role explaining history and back-story so our characters didn’t have to—they were cleverly written and directed to avoid exposition. They required a finely-tuned balance of stylistic nightmare and fact sharing—if they were too surreal we’d lose our audience, but if they lacked mystery and didn’t bend reality enough, our audience would get ahead and the tension would be lost. The most difficult phase of editing a film is stepping back to view it as a whole. Within scenes and from shot to shot, everything can edit together fine, but it’s how the audience feels when leaving the cinema after seeing all those scenes joined together that can be hard to judge. It’s about their emotional connection with the characters, the journeys they’ve endured and how the film resonates afterwards, which are the most important elements to nail. 

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

Lahiff: Visual effects were used sparingly and in an invisible manner to not draw attention away from the real-world setting of our film. Occasional augmentation of prosthetics and the removal of puppeteer-rods were the extent of our visual effects requirements. The film-making style lent itself to capture everything we could in-camera. 

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?

Lahiff: I feel the most important thing I took away from the story was the importance of family. Sticking by your loved ones, no matter what, began resonating stronger and stronger with me as the weeks and months passed after completing the project. 

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