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“The Point Is to Struggle With What You’ve Been Given”: Editor John Magary on Between the Temples

A man sleeps opposite an older woman on a mattress, both their heads facing in opposite directions.Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane in Between the Temples

Between the Temples, co-written by C. Mason Wells and director Nathan Silver, follows a spiritually conflicted cantor (Jason Schwartzman) who finds his faith somewhat revitalized when his grade school music teacher (Carol Kane) enrolls as his latest adult bat mitzvah student.

Editor John Magary discusses how he approached cutting Between the Temples, particularly when it came to navigating the film’s heavy use of improv.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor questionnaire here.

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?

Magary: I was brought on as the second editor for Nathan’s previous feature, Thirst Street. It was a very quick editing process, about two weeks, in which my main task was to address any dangling story or pace issues, and finish it all out. (The initial, already very strong edit was done in France.) Our primary innovation during that process was to add a guiding narration-style voice-over, which added new dimensions to the characters and a somewhat wry tonal element. We were fortunate to get Anjelica Huston to do the voice-over.

Beyond this, I have worked with Nathan in a writing capacity. I very much enjoy working with him. He’s just the right combination of totally neurotic and blindly optimistic.

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?

Magary: For Between the Temples, Nathan and I didn’t have too many in-depth discussions from the outset. I read through the minutely detailed “scriptment” that Chris Wells, the co-writer, and Nathan brought into the production. As with all his films, Nathan’s approach to the material was what I would call deliberately, aggressively loose. New script pages written by Chris would be brought in throughout the entire shoot, scene by scene, so that he and Nathan could modulate the story if need be and accommodate any last-minute changes to the tight, ambitious 18-day shooting schedule. This process of structured surprise is pretty high-flying and certainly keeps everyone on their toes, especially the actors—including me, as I played a small part (as the, ahem, “Muscular Blond Guy”) in one early scene opposite Jason Schwartzman.

Acting in the scene gave me a first-hand insight as an editor into what the post process would be like. In short: the script functioned primarily as a jumping-off point. Me, I had my lines memorized, I was ready to go! And then “action” was called and Jason bounded over, throwing peanuts at me and going completely off-script with these ludicrous improvisations. (At one point, he very angrily screams at my character that my sweater is beautiful. That sort of thing.) And then, at some point in the scene (when??) I had to punch him! I’d had some experience with improv, and Jason is a truly generous and warm and hilarious scene partner, so I could more or less pick up what he was putting down. But it felt a little bit like a roller coaster. Thrilling, and over before you have a chance to breathe. So, as the editor, I was getting a really valuable crash course on the process-to-come of Between the Temples. “Ah, okay, so this is how it’s gonna be, to edit this thing.”

Speaking on improv: for most—but by no means all—scenes, certain dramatic guideposts had to be hit, and sometimes a scene was essentially performed as written, but in some instances the trajectory of the moment-to-moment drama was dictated by the actors. Between the Temples is a comedy, so the actions and tonal flourishes tilted almost always toward the comic, but put simply, the script itself, insofar as there was one, was not always a reliable “map” for the edit.

Nathan and Chris and I share a very similar sense of humor—I’d call it stupid-smart, maybe, at once vulgar and insufferably erudite in a pop-savant sort of way. Obnoxious, sometimes very very dark, but with heart! And we of course watch a lot of movies and like a lot of the same movies. So I had a good sense just by knowing them of what we would want in terms of pace and tone. And I had confidence in the story, because the treatment was so solid, dramaturgically speaking. So once the shoot started, the dailies started rolling in and I started thinking about how I would put this thing together. A lot of it honestly felt pretty straightforward, in story terms, but there was just a great deal of improvisation, and anytime there’s a lot of improv, there’s a kind of hole. How would this all work out? Would it? Are the actors working well together? Do they get it? Are they on the same page as Nathan? Is the tone consistent? Does consistency really matter?

And on top of that, Sean Price Williams shot it, and—this sounds like a cliche, like calling New York City a main character in a rom-com or something dorky like that—but his work is like a performance all its own. He’ll do some crazy roving zoom-in to an actor’s eyebrows and it will feel like an invasion. A focus-pull and small pan might feel like a little breath. Some of the shots are highly unconventional, even unflattering. But he’s always so attentive to the heart of the scene, even when his camera isn’t necessarily where it “should” be. This is why his work is so distinctive. His operating is pushy, grubby even, stubborn, abrasive. And I knew going in that I would have to negotiate with the camera as an expressive element. The cut points would not be preordained.

This is all a very long winded way of saying what looked straightforward as a detailed treatment was not straightforward to edit.

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

Magary: It was a long process, the edit. All told, we took around eight months, including pauses for feedback. I feel that this lengthiness, which is generous and not always feasible, was essential.

In general, and especially when the edit is still in the assembly phase, I prefer to work alone. Nathan and I would meet up at Washington Square Films every morning, and he would head off to his little office, and I would head off to my little office. I had no assistant throughout almost the entire edit, so I would spend a fair amount of time organizing a given scene into take sequences, then think about selects, then start assembling. It’s not rocket science, but here’s what I do: I struggle with a scene, I refine it, I get the audio right, I go back, I do it all again, I watch the scene 78 times, and when it feels like I have something very good, I text Nathan, “Okay, come up and take a look.” And he watches and we discuss and I keep working on the scene or I move on.

Almost every editor I know prefers to work mostly alone. Especially when you are early in the process, just being witnessed from the back of the room can feel like an unnecessary imposition. An errant titter, a sigh—I don’t want to think about these things. I don’t want to wear headphones. I want to hear the film play through some nice speakers and have my own space. Editing is a process of constant reconsideration. You have to somehow maintain an always-replenishing perspective on a scene you’ve been staring at for days. The low points feel like torture. The high points make you stand up from your chair—you finally feel ready to give something away. Something that by this point is like a piece of you. It is all deeply, necessarily personal. It also can be very lonely and that’s okay. There really is no map, no handbook. The point is to struggle with what you’ve been given—to not merely make it work, but to make it sing.

And then you have to show it to people. It’s so scary, but also so valuable. The movie starts to breathe—you see what people laugh at, where they shift in their seats, where they squirm. Are they squirming from discomfort? Boredom? Hopefully they’ll be honest with you. We had only two feedback screenings, but they were so helpful. Just sharing the movie with people in one room, you start to notice things you hadn’t. Where things slump, where they race by. Between the Temples is a comedy. It’s for an audience. And the editor has to watch always as a theoretical audience member—a narrative feature film isn’t a possession, it’s a gift—so the feedback screenings give you an opportunity to step out of the theoretical.

And then, honestly? The process is very focused on refinement. Shortening. Compressing. Our initial cut was about 150 minutes. Our final product is 111 minutes. That’s a painful gap, but you have to get the movie to where it needs to be. It’s shocking, sometimes, how a scene you’ve watched one hundred times can be improved by, for example, merely cutting out of it faster.

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

Magary: I grew up loving movies—my older brother was a big influence on me. I went to film school at Columbia, where I would direct and edit my own films, and then work on tons of others, and I form so many valuable partnerships and friendships. I learned quickly that everything is editing. Writing is editing, shooting is editing, directing is editing. Life is editing!

For years, to make ends meet I have edited corporate videos. Occasionally I will get the chance to edit a feature like Thirst Street or Love After Love. I also directed a feature film called The Mend, which premiered about a decade ago. I would very much like to direct another feature.

I have in the past few years done a lot of editing for the Criterion Channel. Some teasers, but mostly what used to be known, in the DVD days, as “bonus features.” An introduction to a director, a specific take on a film, a lesson. It’s really fun work, because the people at Criterion are so smart and on the ball, and the supporting footage is culled from these masterpieces of cinema. Pretty nice when you can cut from an interview to some gorgeous shot from Vagabond or Gate of Flesh. Best b-roll in the world.

As an editor—and as a writer, and director—my mantra, if I have one, is to leave the door open. Always. I love wild directors, but especially the ones who know the audience. They’re performers. David Lynch and Lucrecia Martel and Scorsese, of course, but also Arnaud Desplechin, Claude Chabrol, Spike Lee. Directors who throw everything they have at the screen to keep you engaged. Directors who constantly surprise. It’s a rare feeling these days when you go to the cinema, to feel surprised, or lost, or surprised that you’re lost. Those are the feelings I cherish.

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

Magary: I edited on Adobe Premiere Pro. I’ve been editing on Premiere since we finished The Mend ten years ago. I believe The Mend is the last Final Cut Pro project I was involved with.

It’s still really Premiere or Avid, if you want to get work. I prefer Premiere because I find it much more intuitive. More of a Mac mindset. When you want to do something, more often than not the way you envision you can do it is the way to do it. Compared to Avid, something like editing audio in Premiere—and audio, to me, is about 70% of editing—is generally straightforward. You can drag whatever weird files you want into your timeline and it won’t scream at you. You can do things wrong, and it forgives you. It lets you cook, as the kids say. It’s not a perfect system, but my level of comfort with it is, at this point, quite high.

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

Magary: This is an easy question. Towards the end of Between the Temples, there is a long shabbat dinner. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to edit, and it’s the best work I’ve ever done.

At the risk of giving too much away about the scene—I certainly wouldn’t want the audience to anticipate it!—I will say that it was shot over two nights, and it was entirely improvised. And when I say improvised, I mean it. Every take was shot on two cameras and lasted about as long as a full roll of super-16 film (about ten minutes). So each take was more or less the scene in its entirety–and each take had not just different dialogue but different actions and a different shape. Characters would behave differently–sometimes they would leave the table, sometimes they would stay. It was a challenge simply to make sense of the footage. And from all of this mishegoss, I needed to make one big coherent climax to the movie.

Nathan had warned me about this sequence from the very beginning of the edit. He would say, with this ominous tone in his voice, “When you get to the shabbat…yeah…we should talk.”

I tackled it initially, as I prefer to do, mostly alone. I watched takes over and over, pulled selects of the best stuff, wrote down (I hate writing anything down) some attempts at structure, discussed it with Nathan, and then wondered to myself, “Can I make this all work?” What’s in the film is truly a synthesis of pure—and often inspired—improvisation. It is not unusual in editing to take a reaction shot from Take 7 and marry it to a line reading from Take 4, but with this kind of improv, you have to do a lot more inventing. You can certainly draw upon the two-camera coverage (which I did, a lot–it was crucial for the scene’s restless shape to have those real-time reactions), but otherwise you have a lot of disparate elements–different emotions, different tones, different facts–and you have to just layer them on top of each other. The mess is, in a lot of ways, pure Nathan.

Eventually it cohered. The initial assembly edit just for the shabbat took about three weeks to complete. Our first cut of the scene was, I think, about 25 minutes long. It was a lot, in the best way. And when it all finally clicked into place–when it was clear that we might actually have something–it was probably the greatest thrill, and greatest relief, I’ve ever experienced as an editor. A few friends who watched our rough cuts said, “That scene—that’s the movie.” I tend to agree.

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?

Magary: The old adage is that every film is written three times—at the script phase, on set, and in the edit. There are stretches in this film that were entirely written. Sharply written. With funny situations, great gags, cutting dialogue. And then there are stretches that were created through pure collaboration—writer, director, actor—as though the film’s production was guided by the light of several lamps and the lamps are spread across the horizon. And I had to pick which lamp to run after. Maybe I run after two lamps? Can I do that? Who knows. We found so much in post. Some little look an actor gives—you see it and you realize, “They might not know where this scene is going, but they know who they’re playing.” And those moments are so fun to discover.

It can be hard to be lost. Especially when you’re supposed to be laughing! It’s comforting to have a plan, to wake up in the morning and know what you’re doing. For the most part, that just couldn’t happen with this movie. And when all is said and done, I loved it.

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