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“The Editing Doesn’t Try to Overly Emphasize Emotions”: Editor Robert Stengaard on The Painter and the Thief

A still from The Painter and the Thief by Benjamin Ree (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

When Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova has two of her naturalist works stolen from an Oslo art gallery, she decides to attend the criminal hearing of one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who was arrested for stealing them. Instead of questioning him about the whereabouts of her paintings (which vanished without a trace), she asks to paint his portrait. Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief shifts perspectives between Kysilkova and Nordland, detailing the unexpected relationship that grows between the two. Editor Robert Stengaard explains how the film went beyond sentimental emotions in order to cleverly portray the unique perspectives from two seemingly conflicting personalities who ultimately share similar wounds. 

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?

Stengaard: Benjamin, the director, needed an editor. He invited me to have a look at some scenes while he described what this could end up becoming. The footage and the story was fascinating. Ingvil, the producer, who I have worked with before, said she would make sure we had enough time and space to create something special. I was all in after that.

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?

Stengaard: We started by making rough cuts of the scenes and sequences we knew we would use. We explored the characters, their relationships and their motives. Initially, we set out to make a fairly “straight” version. It seemed like a perfect story already, with most of the right stuff happening in the right places, almost like it was scripted. As satisfying as that was, we felt the need to take a different approach.

Eventually, we realized we could play with time and perspective in the structure. For instance, letting the subjective experience of one character play out before showing the same scene again, this time from another character’s point of view. This approach made it possible to enhance certain ideas and highlight them in ways that would be impossible with a straightforward storytelling. 

We also wanted to go “beyond sentimentality,” and avoid dwelling too much on emotion. That is, letting the characters carry their feelings fully, but have the story drive the audience in a direction that went beyond just empathizing through the ups and downs; the goal was to bring them to a deeper understanding of our two main characters and the meaning of their relationship. This meant that we would try to communicate a little more with the audience’s intellect than we initially thought.

We wanted to try a ton of other things too. I am very thankful to our producer, who let us fail a hundred times before we started getting it right.

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

Stengaard: We had entered previously unknown territory when our straight story was about to become layered and complex. A good choice in order for us to proceed was to organize screenings for a handful of clever people, after which they gave us great feedback. It took us a few tries to get the structure right, including the shift of perspective. 

We discovered that we should blend different styles of storytelling and editing in this film. These shifts in style and tone would also be motivated by the shifting of perspective. After a while, we got it right. To experience the different styles we wanted to try, we watched and analyzed films that used the type of storytelling we were looking for. 

The idea of going “beyond sentimentality” affected the overall editing of the film. It’s kind of rough and to the point, and it never tries to be pretty. The editing doesn’t try to overly emphasize emotions. 

The initial impression of the story being perfect, tidy and scripted, seemed to disappear as the complexity of the film grew. We tried as much as possible to create something surprising, with an unexpected twist. I sometimes preferred to use the less than technically perfect parts of a shot, those where the camera is trying to find focus or where the photographer is trying to compose the shot. It did not do justice to photographer Kristoffer Kumar, but I think it added to the impression of this film having a “laid-back”, raw style. One could say that the film feigns a lack of sophistication.

The music added emotional impact. The composer Uno Helmersson managed to create a sublime score, giving the roughness of the edit some much-needed contrast. The sound designer is truly an editor’s best friend. Svenn Jakobsen and his crew created just the right atmosphere and mood. They gave life to key details in each scene, sometimes emphasizing the cuts and often giving the sequences, together with the music, a stronger sense of direction.

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

Stengaard: I became a film editor because I was too stubborn (or stupid) to give up my dream when I was younger. I wanted to work with film, nothing else really mattered. After a lot of trying and failing as photographer or director, while being a student or unemployed (who really needs food or clothes when your next film is going to be great?), I was lucky enough to get work as an assistant editor back home in Sweden. 

That was 24 years ago. My attitude hasn’t changed a lot. Almost nothing seems to matter more than the next film. My main influences are the directors and all the people that I get to meet and work with. 

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

Stengaard: Avid. It is truly the best tool for editing and Benjamin was used to Avid, too.

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

Stengaard: The sequences with Bertil (the male main character) in prison was a bit difficult to edit. He goes through a mental transformation, a complicated process that had to be told in a short span of time. It ended up unfolding as two separate parts. The second part developed into a montage, inspired by a classic 70’s film that Benjamin had spotted. We managed to create a feeling of endless repetition, being locked up, a sense of time standing still as Bertil goes through his transformation, heightened by snippets of dialogue and bits and pieces of prison life. The sequence might look and feel like an obvious choice now, but back then it most certainly was not.

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?

Stengaard: I think the film became less about stolen paintings, accidents or conflicts and became more about two people, one thief and one artist, who mirror each other. In the end, it is a love story, a story of two vulnerable outsiders needing and using each other.

By breaking up the story the way we did, I think we give the audience a kind of puzzle to solve. I think viewers like that, and they get tuned into using their intellect when watching this film. The story also becomes richer, more layered and even more fascinating.


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